Thursday, May 22, 2014

Reflections on Gratitude

As usual, my favorite talk from the last session of General Conference was one by President Uchtdorf, specifically the one entitled "Grateful in Any Circumstances". In it, Uchtdorf displays his usual aplomb in discussing spiritually deep subjects, for though he never says things that are hard to understand, he is not afraid to venture into the esoteric (or even the mystical) to get his point across. This particular talk discusses the healing power of gratitude--that one can find solace in any situation by being grateful. 

To give an example of the talk's pure inspirational power, take this quotation:

"We can choose to be grateful, no matter what. This type of gratitude transcends whatever is happening around us. It surpasses disappointment, discouragement, and despair. It blooms just as beautifully in the icy landscape of winter as it does in the pleasant warmth of summer. When we are grateful to God in our circumstances, we can experience gentle peace in the midst of tribulation. In grief, we can still lift up our hearts in praise. In pain, we can glory in Christ’s Atonement. In the cold of bitter sorrow, we can experience the closeness and warmth of heaven’s embrace."

President Uchtdorf presents gratefulness as an attitude that can buoy you up in any situation, no matter how hopeless or desperate. If you exercise gratitude, you can infuse suffering with peace and replace despair with hope. If you are grateful, Uchtdorf says that you can see God's love even in the midst of maelstroms and flights of arrows.

However, Uchtdorf never explains exactly what one who is grateful in her circumstances should be grateful for. If, as he says, our gratitude should not depend on any outward circumstances, what exactly makes it qualify as...well...gratitude? Uchtdorf never answers this question, but I think I have found an answer in another place: in the book Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology, by Adam S. Miller.

Miller explains:

"To be catalyzed by the atonement: to see and enter the kingdom of God as it is manifest in the grace of whatever is given in the present moment. / The gospel: a promise that joy does not depend on what is given but on its givenness."

Miller sees all life as a process of giving and receiving. In several of the aforementioned book's essays, he explains that it is incorrect to view a person as a simple, discrete whole. You borrow your life from other people and things--whether you take oxygen from the atmosphere, knowledge from a book, a facial feature from a parent, or a mannerism from a friend you spend time with. It follows from this observation that your life comes totally and unconditionally from elsewhere, and thus that you receive your entire life as a gift.

However, you can receive this gift in two different ways. One the one hand, you can focus on the content of the gift--becoming happy when the gift is good, but being depressed when the gift is sub-par. But you can also choose to focus on the gift's givenness, or rather on the fact that it is given.

I think that this is the essence of President Uchtdorf's teachings on gratitude. Instead of letting your happiness depend on the contingencies of everyday cause and effect, you should instead rejoice that you are given this awkward, messy, incomplete thing called life at all. Instead of bemoaning the short-end-of-the-deal you perceive your life to be, be joyous that you do indeed have a gift! The quality of your life doesn't matter in this respect; to quote Wittgenstein, "Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is" (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.44). Heavenly joy doesn't come contingently; it shines upon all circumstances, and you receive it to the extent that you see the events of your life as the grace of God.

But what about sin? What about those people who, despite their best efforts, remain entrenched in sinful behavior? Should someone with an addiction be grateful? How can that person see the grace of God in what she was given?

In answer, the weakness you might show in trying to follow the commandments lets you know that something's wrong with your mental "insides". Without those outward manifestations, the selfishness or pride inside you would hide itself away from both your eyes and those of others. As Swedenborg has said many times, the Lord's divine providence makes sure that evils become expressed, because if they weren't expressed, they could never be removed. So, be grateful for your weaknesses! If you sometimes fall prey to sin, know that each time you repent from it you draw closer to God than you were before. Sin, at least as outwardly-manifest behavior, is thus a great blessing to those who repent (even if it's again and again)--it teaches you to be humble and patient, and to always rely on the atonement.

If we remember Christ, everything that happens to us (even our sins!) is for our benefit. Knowing this, we can truly feel "encircled about eternally in the arms of [God's] love" (2 Nephi 1:15). And what better reason can there be to be grateful? He will care for us no matter what comes, and when we receive whatever is given to us as the grace of this love, we will find peace in our fitfully ascending path to the light.